Biting your lip. Cussing too much. Being late to work. Eating junk food. What do all of these have in common? They are all common bad habits people have. Let's face it, pretty much everyone has at least one bad habit in life! While some are harmless, others can be annoying or even downright harmful. Besides those that appear during everyday life, us fly anglers can easily accumulate several additional bad habits on the water as well. Through both my observations and personal experience, my opinion is that these bad habits not only seem more prevalent in fly fishing than conventional fishing, but they're harder for us fly folk to overcome, too.
Think about fly fishing vs. conventional fishing. I have always participated in both forms of angling with about an equal 50/50 split, but why do I think that overcoming bad habits in fly fishing is more difficult? Some of you may disagree, but I believe it's simply because there's just a whole lot more going on in fly fishing and some facets of it are more exacting. There's loose line to manage, a totally different way of casting, etc, etc, etc.....
I've been fly fishing for something like 24 years now and still fight a few lingering habits. I never claim to be the perfect fly angler (nobody should), and I'm confident that even some of the most polished-looking anglers in magazines and on social media face the same occasional struggles, too. I sat at my desk here for a few minutes the other day thinking about a few noteworthy negative nuances that some anglers might still be fighting, or perhaps might even be unaware of. There's a boatload of possible problems—especially with the casting stroke itself—but here's a rundown of three possibly less-obvious habits that popped into my head first. Do any of these seem familiar?
1.) Constantly watching the back cast
Turning your head to watch the back cast isn't always a no-no. I do it a lot in very tight spots where I need to physically aim my backcast around, over, or even between objects that are in the way. I'll also do it sometimes when just casting around in open water, not really targeting a pinpoint location or target. It's not only kind of fun watching the loop unfurl back there, but it helps to perfect the timing and loop control which can be very useful, especially if fly casting is still relatively new to you.
While pretty much everyone watches both sides of their cast when first learning, you definitely want to get into the habit of being a proficient caster without watching the back cast. The reason can be summed up in one word: focus. If you are sight fishing or simply trying to get the fly into a small target area, you lose sight of the intended target each time you look back. If you're casting to something that's tough to see in the first place like a carp in dirty water or a small school of bonefish, you may momentarily lose the target altogether, thus blowing that whole presentation. Practice keeping your eyes forward and fixate on the target while casting. Learn to feel the road load and unload, and try perfect your timing so that you get good loop formation without having to turn around to watch. You'll find it's much easier to aim, adjust, and make a very precise presentation every time.
2.) "Trout setting" too much
The term "trout setting"—setting the hook by simply lifting the rod sharply upwards—can be very effective, especially when there's an abundance of slack line between the rod tip and fly (like when drifting a nymph or dry fly) or when simply fishing smaller patterns for smaller fish. It allows you to come tight quickly by moving lots of line, and the rod can absorb some of the jolt which helps protect a fragile tippet. However, when stripping bigger flies on heavier leaders for bigger species, that trout set is often frowned upon.....but many anglers still do it simply out of habit. It's simply a natural reaction to sharply lift the rod when a strike is felt or seen.
This is when the "strip strike" comes into play. When you're stripping a streamer and you feel the fish eat it, rather than lifting the rod sharply to set the hook, simply strip again but with a longer and quicker, more powerful motion to set the hook. If the fish is hooked solidly, you can then lift the rod, clear the line, and play the fish like usual. The bonus here is that if the fish does not get hooked on the initial strip strike, your fly is still in the water in front of the fish and can get eaten again. If a strong trout set is performed and the fish isn't hooked, your line/fly may be pulled from the water and land far from the fish or even way behind you!
The strip strike also allows you to generate a lot of hook setting power while keeping a very direct, firm connection to the fish since the rod remains in a low position with the line tight. On a trout set, the flex of the rod cushions (lessens) a bit of the hook setting power. When fishing for species like tarpon, bonefish, stripers, and even the common largemouth bass, get into the habit of strip striking. Be warned, though, the trout set can take a long time to overcome!
3.) Letting your slack get outta whack
It doesn't matter if you're on the deck of a skiff, walking a grassy bank, or wading a river, controlling the loose line is very important. In fact, it can most definitely cost you a fish! The biggest problem here is the line getting tangled or catching debris. If you hook up and your line is looped around something or fouled in a gnarly ball, when the fish runs and that mess hits your guides.....well.....the outcome may not be what you want. See the picture above? That's me trying to pick apart a nasty knot with a bonefish tugging on the end of the line. The cause? Me not being vigilant about watching my slack line. It happens to all of us no matter what, but keeping track of your loose line helps minimize these cringe-worthy scenarios.
Dealing with lots of loose line can be a challenge, but be sure to keep a watchful eye and learn how to manage it. Depending on where you're fishing, you may need to glance at it constantly. When stripping in line, aim so you're stripping the loose line towards the clearest possible area and try to spread it out somewhat rather than stacking it on top of itself. If the wind is blowing and you're on the deck of a skiff, stripping the line back into the lower cockpit of the boat helps it to not get blown overboard. Lots of folks get complacent about where their stripped line is going, and the penalty for that laziness can be the fish of a lifetime.